Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Three Simple Questions: Who am I?

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Galatians 3:23-29:

Last week we began a new series looking at Bishop Reuben Job’s book Three Simple Questions, but as it turns out those questions are really anything but simple.  The questions are, who is God, who am I and finally who are we together.  Last week we tackled the first one, which is, at least in my mind, the hardest question which is who is God?  We looked at several different aspects of God, and twenty minutes greatly condensed we stated that understanding who God is is to know that God is always beyond our ability to completely understand, as well as to communicate that nature of God, and yet we can also say that God is love.  But what we also discussed is the fact that since God is love that God wants to be in relationship with the creation, and most importantly to be in relationship with each and every one of us.  For God so loved the world, John says, and God loves us and we should understand ourselves as sons and daughters of God, which is how we answer today’s question.  Who am I?  Who are you?  We are the sons and daughters of God, we are brothers and sisters in the faith, and since we’ve answered that so easily and so well, let’s all go home, right?  Well, it’s not quite that easy.  So we start back at the beginning again where we were last week.
In Genesis chapter 1, we are read “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  Notice that in this version that man and woman are created at the same time, and this will be important when we come back to the passage from Galatians, and after God creates mankind God blessed them.  The word for God in Hebrew is אֱלֹהִ֤ים. The last letter of the word as we read it, which is actually the first letter of the word since Hebrew is read from right to left rather than from left to right, is that sort of n looking character, which is known as aleph.  It has no sound, so it’s not actually pronounced, but as the first letter of the alphabet holds a position of preeminence, and so perhaps says something to us about the mysteriousness and unutterability of God.  There is a wonderful Midrash which asks why the aleph is not the first letter of the Torah, that is the first letter of the Bible.  The story says that all of the letters came to God to say why they should be the first letter to be used, all except the aleph.  When God asked aleph why it didn’t give an argument in its favor, it said since it was silent it had nothing to say.  But to honor the letter’s humility, God honored it with being the first letter of the alphabet and to also take God’s name.

But then when we look at the word for mankind, it is הָֽאָדָם֙.  If you notice the letters are nearly the same, just in a different order, and it doesn’t start with the aleph, which is a reminder that we are made in the image of God, we are not God, an important thing to keep in mind. But the aleph is still there because there is a spark of the divine within us.  This is true even if we look at the word Adam, which doesn’t come until Genesis two in the second creation story, when Adam is created first.  The word there is אָדָם, which is the aleph plus the word for blood.  But there’s one other piece that I think is important, and that is the word for creation.  That’s one of the attributes we named last week, that God creates.  The word for created is וַיִּבְרָ֨א.  It too contains the aleph, and so just as God is part of creation, and creates, we too are part of creation and we create.  It’s part of who we are, not bringers of destruction, but creation.  I think that works into the idea we talked about last week for God’s name which comes from the verb to be,  which means that our being is not static, but is very much about being.  We are not nouns, we are verbs, because we are made in the image of God, and so how we understand God is how we begin to understand ourselves and begin to answer the question who am I.

We know the name of God because Moses asked God “what is your name?”  And we said that was one of the first questions we ask others the first time we met them.  Another question asked soon after that is what do you do?  Our occupations say a lot about who we are, and for many of us they become our identities.  That’s why lots of people have such a hard time adjusting to retirement is because we’ve suddenly lost a sense of who we are because our jobs where a part of us.  Of course another reason is because of a sign I saw this week which said that retirement equaled half the income but twice the spouse.  Another question we ask is where you are from?  That too becomes part of our identity, part of who we are.  But just like our occupations, that’s not really who we are either, and yet it’s also a part of who we are.  That’s one of the things that Paul is saying to us.

Paul is writing this letter to the churches in Galatia, which is in modern day Turkey, and he’s not writing to them because he’s happy with them.  In fact he begins by saying “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.”  Apparently there is another group of evangelists who have come into these communities and they are emphasizing circumcision and the importance of following Jewish law as they key step to becoming a follower of Jesus.  That is they are trying to emphasize a certain type of identity as being more important, and those who didn’t match that needed to change.  They had only a small range of understanding of who and what a Christian was, and were trying to force everyone into their own mold, of course it was the mold that they fit into themselves.  They didn’t have to change to fit their mold, they wanted everyone else to change to be like them.  Always convenient when that’s the way it happens.  But Paul, who had his own mold and preconceived notions blown away by Christ, says to the Galatians that not how it works, that’s not who we are or who God wants us to be.

And so Paul says that when we clothe ourselves in Christ, that because of the freedom we are given through Christ, that there is no longer “Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  Now Paul is not saying that these distinctions just magically disappear, that if you were a slave when you were baptized that you are suddenly now free to do what you want.  But, what Paul is saying is that those distinctions are not the distinctions that matter anymore.  They are still distinctions, people are still male and female, still republican or democrat or independent, still Yankee fans or fans of some other team, but those are not the right categories to be considering.

The categories that we create about nationality, or position, or status, or education, or gender, or sexuality, that we say are important, and decide how we view people and what we are going to let them do, or not do, Paul says they don’t matter.  What matters is that in God’s eyes all those things are flattened, they are eliminated because of Christ.  That through Christ we are all made children of God, heirs to the promise given to Abraham.  That we might still see those distinctions, but if we make judgements about people using them then we are wrong because that is not how God sees us or how God calls us.  God sees all of us as beloved sons and daughters, beloved children.  But is that how most of us see ourselves?

I’m willing to guess not.  That when someone asks us who we are, we do not say “I am a beloved child of God, just like you.”  But perhaps we should.  I think the reason why we don’t answer that way, first is because we don’t think of it immediately.  We don’t think of ourselves first in relation to God, but shouldn’t that be our primary relation?  Our primary understanding of ourselves?  Several years ago the magazine the Christian Century asked some well-known pastors and scholars to describe the gospel message in seven words or less.  That’s something you should all go home and try.  In seven words or less, what is the good news?  My favorite of the responses was “You are who God says you are.”  You are who God says you are.  But I think that’s the second point of where many of us get held up, of why we don’t answer the question who am I by saying we are beloved children of God, and that’s because we don’t think we’re worthy, or that we’re good enough, or if only God really knew who we truly were then God wouldn’t really love us.  Why are we harder on ourselves than God is?  Why do we judge ourselves harder than God does? Why do we hold ourselves to a higher standard than God does?

Let’s look at some of the people that God called and were considered beloved. Abraham lied and said that his wife was his sister, risking her with the king, in order to save his own life.  Jacob deceived his father in order to get his brother’s birthright, and then totally messed up his kids.  Moses was a murderer and he stuttered.  David was an adulterer, and his grandmother Ruth was from the wrong side of the tracks as it were.  Peter could never get out of his own way.  The woman at the well was of questionable character and definitely of the wrong religion.  Matthew was a tax collector and therefore a traitor.  Paul oversaw the death of Stephen and persecuted Christians.  At that doesn’t even really begin to scratch the surface of those whom God calls and uses, those whom God considered beloved, those whom God blesses, those whom God loves.

Sister Helen Prejean, some of whose ministry and story was told in the movie Dead Man Walking said, “People are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives.”  If that weren’t true we wouldn’t be here, because we have all done some terrible things in our lives, now maybe there are others who have done worse, but that’s when we get into trouble is when we begin thinking things like that.  We all fall short of the glory of God, we have all fallen short of living into the image of God, and we have all fallen short of being good disciples of Christ. None of us love a life of Christian perfection.  None of us live in total alignment with God’s will for our lives, as Methodists we claim that we are moving on to perfection, on to being in total alignment with God.  But you know what?  In spite of all of that God still love us, and Jesus tells us that God is still waiting for us with open arms, waiting for us to come home so that God can throw a party for us and celebrate.

This is the God of love who wants to be in relationship with us, and it is the key to our identity, it is who we are, we are children of God, warts and all, sins and all, wants, desires, failures, successes, all of it is utterly stripped away in the presence of God, because God doesn’t care, God loves each and every one of us just as we are because we are God’s children.  We are always more than what we think of ourselves, especially in the eyes of God, and if in the eyes of God we are loved we need to start learning how to love ourselves the same way.  I think there are two ways to do that.

The first is that we simply say to ourselves, I am a beloved child of God.  And not only say it, but more importantly begin to believe it.  And the second is very similar.  In the 43rd chapter of Isaiah, the first three verses say “I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you.”  Now we are going to hear that again, but this time I want you to insert your name into the passage after God says I have called you by name.  “I have called you by name, (name) you are mine.”  I have called you by name, and you are mind.  I have called you by name, and you are mine.  “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior... because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you.”  I have called you by name, and you are mine, because we are children of God.  What if saying that to ourselves every day became our mantra?  Do you think that might make a difference in how we see ourselves and think of ourselves and value ourselves?

In Romans, Paul writes, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, not things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)  We are God’s beloved children, and God has called us by name and we are God’s.

Who am I? Who are you? We are children of God.  Bishop Job says that “we are not given a special place because of our birth, place of origin, wealth, gender or occupation.  As children of God, all receive an identity and place as God’s beloved child.”  We have that identity and place because we are made in the image of God.  “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Jesus asked.  And then he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers and my sisters! For whoever does the will of my father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”  Who are we?  We are brothers and sisters in Christ and we are children of God, and to live into that we must also begin to see that in everyone else and remember that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:5-6)  May it be so my sisters and brothers.  Amen.

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